Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Breath Prayers

I have been reading again from an "old friend." A biology textbook written in the 80's by two Chilean Marxist Biologists, Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana, "The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding" Shambala Publications, Boston, 1987.

Beginning with a whimsical description of the senses and how we learn to see color, hear voices, etc. they are able to explore the development of life. In the middle, not near the end of their description of that thing we call evolution they place altruism, that capacity to care, to love, to share, to cooperate, to teach.

They argue that our usual take on evolution as a competition of one against another misses much of what allows for survival. Instead of love miraculously appearing after generations of existence that is "red in tooth and claw," it is nurture and cooperation that enable the fittest.
"This view of animal life as selfish is doubly wrong. It is wrong, first, because natural history tells us, wherever we look that instances of behavior which can be described as altruistic are almost universal. Second, it is wrong because the mechanisms we put forward to understand animal drift [evolution] do not presuppose the individualistic view that the benefit of one individual requires the detriment of another. 
Indeed, throughout this book we have seen that the existence of living organisms in natural drift (both ontogenic and phylogenic) is not geared to competition but to conservation of adaptation in an individual encounter with the environment that results in survival of the fittest." (p.197)
Our own human experience in the smallest moment of adaption, that is the birth of a child, immediately demonstrates this principle. We know that the child must breathe and we are ready to help that happen. Thank goodness we've learned better practices than shocking the newborn into breathing with a slap. But we will not leave until that child is breathing on his or her own.

From within that earnest and anxious beginning our hearts go out as the child and our hopes hang on their ability to learn from more of our teaching and care not just for their own survival but so they may in turn help those who come after them.

We know this altruism in the New Testament as ἀγάπη or agape. In the Old Testament the closest term is the word for the character of God to be merciful, to express loving kindness, חֶסֶד or hesed.

For the Chileans altruism is natural. It is everywhere there is breath and it connects us for the sake of survival.

I have a close and dear friend whose daughter-in-law and son just gave birth to a baby boy. I visited the hospital and saw how preciously this new life was held by someone just as new to grand-parenting as the baby is to the world. It was a beautiful thing to behold. It took my breath away for moment.

As I was leaving I was given the opportunity to "say a prayer." I reached out and we held hands and first let our breathing be our prayer. We gave thanks for the baby's first breath and acknowledged the prayer-FULL-ness of that breathing. We gave thanks that a family of prayer surrounded this little one and we gave thanks for our own breathing.

This is no proof of Maturana's and Varela's claims for altruism as an instrument of evolution. But it is all the evidence I need to understand that a little child's chances of survival -- and therefore the survival of our own species -- are best found and forwarded by God's hesed and agape, especially when we understand our praying together to be as basic as our very breathing.

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